Unit Two – Early Theories of Development

I was initially hopeful about the description given in by Greig, Hulme and Turner that Modernism recognised the interdependent nature of the relationship between the “social, cultural, political and economic life” (Lerner, 1972 cited in Greig et. al. 2007 75). It seems pretty intuitive that changing any aspect of society will inevitably impact on other aspects, which will cascade effects onto still others, if only because all these aspects combine in their impact on individual members of the nation.  No one person only interacts through one of these aspects, so how could they be seen as independent? Coming, as Eisenstadt claims (1973, cited in ibid, 75) did from the motivation to minimize the potentially destabilizing and conflict inducing effects of development, this seemed like a positive insight. However, when I compared this to Hewitt’s description of Modernism’s justification of the emphasis placed on economic growth as the instigator of development; that a sufficient level of growth would mean that “the rest would all follow” (2000, 293), if felt that the real insight of interdependence had been lost. Surely if one recognises that there is a subtle interlinked relationship between aspects of a whole, one should also be able to see that causing dramatic, rapid change in only one of those aspects wouldn’t simply affect all the others; the changes would warp them.

I struggled to see how this had been missed, until I looked at the birth of modernism and the political climate at the time.  Clearly there was a huge bias towards the OECD countries at the various formative stages (ibid. 291-292). Given the recent colonial history, it is only natural that these countries were motivated by their own political and economic agendas – in most cases overtly – but I think it was more subtle than this. The dismissive attitude displayed towards non-economic forms of development (for example, human rights) in the claim that they would inevitably be triggered by economic growth is indicative of the value placed on economic development by developed nations. I feel that the focus on economics can be ascribed to a certain extent to the fact that this was the element of development in ‘southern’ nations that would have the greatest positive impact on the OECD nations themselves. ‘Developed’ nations were still, whether they admitted it or not, finding ways to gain from post-colonial nations.  The positive impact of greater human rights in underdeveloped nations for developed nations, as a far more subtle and unmeasurable factor, seemed to fail to gain ground as fundamental aspect of development. Instead, it was relegated to the position of a positive afterthought that could be hoped for, but not necessarily prioritized.

For me this is the greatest point of salience of Modernism today, because I simply don’t believe that at the deepest level anything has changed in the attitude of developed nations, whether they care to accept it or not. To my mind, the fact remains that if there were no political or economic capital to be gained from it, there would be a fraction of the interest in development in its more modern incarnations that we see from ‘western’ governments. Both Modernism and Dependency theory must fulfil the role to some extent of reminding us of the roots of our motivations, and also reminding us of where it led to.  In particular, Modernism must still be salient in that it was the dominant theory at the time of the formation of institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. No matter how they have evolved, their roots are inescapably tied to this view of the world, and to forget it would be to allow the potential for mistakes to be re-made.

However, as I described on the discussion board this week, I think that critiques of Dependency theory also have more positive guidance to offer to modern development theorists.  Kiely’s paradox (1995, cited in Greig, Hulme and Turner 2007, 95) that “The status of normality becomes simultaneously more opaque” when one tries to explain every single case of development success as an exception – in this case to the ‘normal ‘ transition into modernity – draws attention to the almost necessarily unique nature of each nation’s development narrative. Looking back to the opinions I expressed in week one’s discussions about the importance of recognising people as individuals and of listening to what people decide they want rather than dictating their needs to them, it is perhaps unsurprising that I was drawn to the suggestion that the idea of a ‘norm’ for developmental progress is unsupportable when considered in an historical context.

In other words I do believe that both Modernism and Dependency theory are still salient in current theory, but more as a tool for context and, if considered authentically, as a way to highlight continuing weaknesses and unjustified assumptions by showing the effect that these errors had when they were present in historical settings.


Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007), Challenging global inequality: Development theory and practice in the 21st century. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hewitt, T. (2000), ‘Half a Century of Development’, in Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Allen, T., Thomas, A. (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford.


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